No One Killed Our Farmers Farm labourers die after inhaling highly toxic fumes while spraying crops

23, Dec 2017 | Sushmita

The curious case of pesticide related farmer deaths in Eastern Maharashtra just got murkier. While 18 farmers have died and 800 others have been admitted to hospitals across Akola, Yavatmal, Buldhana, Amravati, Nagpur and Bhandara districts, it has now come to light that most of these deaths were preventable.

The farmers died from poisoning due to exposure to excessively toxic pesticides that should have never entered the local market. This suggests that regulating authorities were either incompetent or complicit in the entry and easy availability of unlicensed pesticides, many of which contain highly toxic chemicals.

The provisions mentioned in the Insecticides Act, 1968 clearly state that “All insecticides have to go through a Registration Process with the Central Insecticides Board & Registration Committee (CIB & RC) before they can be made available for use or sale.” So there are a few big questions that need to be asked. Who is manufacturing these dangerous pesticides? Why are the manufacturers not prevented from manufacturing unlicensed pesticides in the first place? How are unlicensed pesticides entering the market? What is being done to stop the distribution and sale of such pesticides? Who killed our Indian farmers?

MS Gholap, Director of Agriculture (Input and Quality Control), Yavatmal District washed his hands off any responsibility. “The crop is tall. So when the farmers spray the pesticides, some of it falls on them and they also end up inhaling some of it,” he said to CJP, offering a flimsy explanation for how the farmers came into contact with the toxins. Gholap didn’t stop there and even went on to blame the farmers for failing to wear protective gear like masks and gloves while spraying. “The pesticides are colour coded blue, green, yellow and red based on toxicity, with yellow and red denoting the highest levels of toxicity. The farmers should choose less toxic pesticides,” he said. He further alleged that farmers failed to train and educate their farm labourers about usage, correct method of spraying as well as protective measures.

He also categorically denied that any unlicensed pesticides were available in the market. However, he did admit that pesticides that are available in the market that are extremely toxic namely Profenofos, Permethrin and Monocrotophos. The pesticide that seems to have most impacted the farmers is the phosphorus compound in the chemical, Monocil that contains Monocrotophos. In fact Monocrotophos is banned in many countries including Sri Lanka. In India too farmers are not allowed to use it on vegetables, but there is no restriction on spraying it on other crops with it. This loophole is either reckless or illogical. Either way the fact that hapless farm labourers are made to risk their lives in a bid to exploit this loophole sounds downright callous, even a little sinister!

Repeated attempts by CJP to contact Rajesh Deshmukh, Collector of Yavatmal for his response met with no response. We did get to speak to his PA but were unable to get the Collector on record.

Image: Amir Rizvi

Following the deaths a Public Interest Litigation was filed before the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court by activist Jammu Anand and Hariban Gulhane. On October 6, taking cognisance of the failure of the state machinery to prevent these deaths, the court issued a notice directing Sachindra Pratap Singh, Commissioner of Agriculture (Pune) and Rajesh Deshmukh, Collector of Yavatmal, to file personal affidavits pointing out investigations done by their respective officers in the field naming insecticides which are found defective or at fault. Further they were directed to furnish information on steps taken to prevent recurrence of similar deaths. If no steps have been taken by the respondents, the court directed them to immediately instruct their ground staff including various police authorities to see that the agriculturists or farm labourers are instructed accordingly and use of such insecticides discontinued forthwith.

The Registration Certificate for pesticides mandates that a label be put on the packaging, which clearly indicates the nature of the insecticide (Agricultural or Household use), composition, active ingredient, target pest(s), recommended dosage, caution sign and safety precautions. Here too, there are severe lapses in common usage as pesticides with catchy names and attractive packaging without any regard to the prescribed colour coding are openly sold over the counter in these areas.According to a report in Firstpost a dealer in Jawada, stocked and sold attractive bottles of pesticides with catchy names like Godzilla, Xplode and Shark.

Sub point no. 2 (v) of point number 36 of the Insecticides Act mandates that the instruction and training has to be provided regarding the use of things supplied to the workers for their safety. Navnath Kolapkar, Superintendent of Agricultural Department, Yavatmal who is responsible for education and training programs for farmers w.r.t pesticide usage was quoted by Indian Express as saying that they undertake awareness programmes, “but farmers don’t generally observe caution.” He further added “We also keep tabs on spurious or banned products. We are planning to make it compulsory for the kendras to make guideline leaflets available to farmers.”

The chief of the Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swawalamban Mission, Kishor Tiwari, a state government task force set up for the welfare of farmers termed the deaths of farmers from pesticide inhalation in Vidarbha as “genocide committed by the state” and sought criminal action against the manufacturers as well as “corrupt government officials hand in glove with them”. He also alleged that the pesticides business in the country was being controlled by three multinational companies, their agents in India and government officials who have been operating in complete violation of the Insecticides Act.

The Agriculture Department has meanwhile rushed two ‘Quality Control’ probe teams to Yavatmal and Akola to check if some of the pesticides were spurious. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has ordered an SIT probe into the deaths and has assured assured that a case of culpable homicide will be registered against the pesticide manufacturers and dealers for circulating non-certified pesticide in the region, reported Hindustan Times. Gharda Chemicals Ltd has been booked under the charge. The state government is in the process of registering a case against Syngenta —an agro chemical company for selling a pesticide that is not recommended. Phadnavis even banned spraying machines and pumps made in China as they were found to be of a poor quality often causing the sprayer to inhale the pesticide. However, even the regular spraying machines have caused deaths and hazards and were being used in six out of the 18 cases.

Though the government has ordered a SIT probe in this incident, the responsibilities of the government do not end there. In fact the responses of the government are either too late or not enough. Further, trying to suggest that farmers and labourers were responsible for their own death is a very convenient way to shrug off any responsibility.

Feature Image: Amir Rizvi (Raja Rao Wadkar’s son Vijay was admitted to the local hospital after he suffered pesticide poisoning. They are cotton farmers from Bhari Village, located 9 kms from Yavatmal)

This article was first published on 18th Oct 2017 and we are reproducing it today on 23rd Dec 2017


Part-2: Allowed to Breathe Poison in Vidarbha

Part-3: Plugging the Loopholes

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